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What America Owes to the Greeks and Romans

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John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison encountered the classics while at college. Adams developed his devotion to Cicero at Harvard, poring over the Roman’s famous orations in the hope of attaining a similar eloquence. At William and Mary, Jefferson’s tastes were more eclectic, shaped by the empiricism of teachers steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment and by a preference for Greek philosophers over Romans. Madison attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), whose Scottish-born president John Witherspoon relied on the classics to encourage students to love liberty and preserve virtue against encroachments from private interest.

Throughout their public careers, these men repeatedly sought wisdom from the ancients when grappling with the challenges of their own day. Each was keenly aware that all classical republics had eventually succumbed to tyranny once virtue gave way to a pernicious factionalism. Washington sternly warned against the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his farewell address. Of the four men, Adams remained the most steadfast classicist. At the time of the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, he urged his fellow colonists to “read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome.” During his presidency, he saw conspiracies around every corner, insisting that he alone remained above party. Deprived of a second term, he retreated to his Massachusetts farm, imagining himself a latter-day Cicero, who likewise ended up “watched, dreaded, envied, by all: no doubt Slandered by innumerable Emissaries, despized, insulted, belied.”

As for Jefferson, the opening words of the Declaration of Independence testified to his attraction to Epicurean thought, which emphasized happiness as “the aim of life.” Over time, classical models exerted a greater influence over his views of architecture than of politics. His first Inaugural Address, in 1801, barely mentioned virtue, and his reminder that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle” was at best a lukewarm warning against factionalism.

Madison, the youngest member of this foursome, proved the most intellectually dynamic. He could cite ancient texts as readily as anyone, but argue with them as well. Observing the weaknesses of the national government under the Articles of Confederation, he concluded that factions were unavoidable. The key was to limit their divisive potential through a system of checks and balances designed to prevent any one party from exercising overweening power — an absolute necessity for a republic far larger than any in the ancient world. At the Constitutional Convention, Madison made obligatory gestures toward virtue even as he led the way in devising a governmental structure that placed little reliance on the willingness of the people or their leaders to set aside their private interests for the good of all.

Vestiges of the founders’ fascination with the classics persisted into the early 19th century among many other Americans. New towns bore the names of ancient cities, public buildings followed Greek and Roman designs and politicians reviled their opponents as latter-day Catilines, likening them to one of the most notorious conspirators against the Roman Republic. Yet the heyday of classicism had passed. Such arcane knowledge smacked of elitism in an increasingly egalitarian age. With the rise of a market economy, Americans celebrated competition in pursuit of profit. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, the nation’s leaders embraced the factionalism of party politics. No orator urged his rowdy audience to be virtuous. It seemed that the only time Aristotle was mentioned was in defense of slavery.

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